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What DeBrincat’s new deal means for Blackhawks’ cap outlook

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The Chicago Blackhawks took care of some pretty important business on Thursday when they announced a three-year contract extension for one of their top young players, Alex DeBrincat.

Since he still has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract there wasn’t a huge rush for the Blackhawks to get this deal done now, but doing so helped them get ahead of the game when it comes to constructing next year’s roster.

Let’s take a quick look at what it means for both DeBrincat and the Blackhawks.

It eliminates a headache for the Blackhawks next summer

The storyline that dominated the NHL offseason this past summer was the way the RFA signing process dragged on for months with pretty much every significant player remaining unsigned until well after training camps began. It didn’t result in any meaningful player movement, but it did see a shift in the way RFA contracts are constructed with nearly every player opting for shorter term bridge deals.

Three year deals that increased in salary each year (the biggest salary is in year three, which impacts the qualifying offer on the next contract) became the new normal. Even though everything eventually ended up getting done, it still seemed to be a headache for every team that had to deal with it. Given the new bridge contract trend the Blackhawks probably figured they might as well just get right to it and take care of it now.

[Related: DeBrincat signs three year bridge deal with Blackhawks]

The won’t have to worry about it with their best young player next summer, and that is probably a relief because they still have five restricted free agents to deal with next summer, including Dylan Strome who is entering a massive year in his development.

He may have done the Blackhawks a favor

There was no rush or incentive for DeBrincat to re-sign right now when he still has this season ahead of him. By doing so he may have really helped the Blackhawks’ short-term salary cap outlook because he may have undersold himself a bit financially.

The $6.4 million cap hit is on the lower end of some of the recent RFA deals, and that makes some sense. He has just two years in NHL and while he has been outstanding, especially when it comes to putting the puck in the net, I don’t know that he is as impactful all over the ice defensively and as a possession driver as, say, a Brayden Point or a Mathew Tkachuk.

So to get a deal in their price range is probably a fair one for him.

But again, DeBrincat still has another year on his entry-level contract and if he repeats what he did a year ago (scoring 40 goals) or even improves his overall game (and there is no reason to believe he will not) he could have been looking at a much bigger deal for himself next summer, which could have complicated things for the Blackhawks and their salary cap outlook.

His contract expires the same time as the Blackhawks’ veteran core

DeBrincat’s deal will expire in the summer of 2023 when he will still be a restricted free agent. Because his base salary in the final year of the contract is $9 million, he will be looking at a huge qualifying offer from the Blackhawks and, as long as he continues to be a productive goal-scorer, a huge contract. That same summer the Blackhawks will have a ton of salary coming off the books as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith will all have their contracts expiring at the same time. Brent Seabrook‘s deal comes off the books one year later. It is pretty much a given that Keith and Seabrook won’t be re-signed beyond these current contracts given their ages, so the Blackhawks should have plenty of salary cap room to get a new deal for DeBrincat. In the short-term, the Blackhawks’ at least know what they have to work with regarding DeBrincat’s deal within their core as they try to squeeze another championship window out of the Kane, Toews, and Keith era.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks encouraged by strong second half under Colliton

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A second straight season without playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is unacceptable for the Chicago Blackhawks of today. Having won three championships since 2010, the franchise established itself as one of the NHL’s elite teams, but not playing deep into April the last two years resulted in change.

Joel Quenneville and his three Blackhawks Cup rings were told to go after 15 games last season. Enter Jeremy Colliton, who was running the bench for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford. It was a drastic switch for a roster that features plenty of veterans, but after some time letting the new coach’s system sink in, the results finally began to show.

The Blackhawks recorded 39 points in 31 games after the All-Star break, third-most in the Western Conference over that span. They scored 112 goals, tied for fourth-most in the NHL, and vaulted themselves into a wild card race that they would ultimately fall short in by six points.

The takeaway from that final stretch was that the players saw hope that some continuity in their play, improvements defensively, and a full training camp and regular season under Colliton will pay off.

“It’s almost like we’re restarting again,” Patrick Kane told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour. “You can kind of throw those [championship] years out the window. I know we have a couple guys from those teams but a lot has changed in the NHL, a lot has changed with our team. 

“I don’t want to say we’re in a rebuild, but we’re just rebuilding the team we need to be to win a championship. With the roster turnover, with Jeremy having more experience, our veterans coming in as motivated as they’ve ever been, it bodes well for our team this year.”

[MORE: Colliton looking forward to camp with new-look Blackhawks]

While the offense was hot, the defense was not. Only three teams in the West allowed more goals than the Blackhawks did (102) post-All-Star break. The acquisitions of Robin Lehner, Olli Maatta, and Calvin de Haan aim to improve things on that side of the ice, but it will require more than the players whose main job is to keep the “Goals Allowed” column a low number.

“I think everyone’s got to buy into the system,” said Alex DeBrincat. “It took us too long to get to the point where we were pissed off and not wanting to get scored on. Last year we’d win games 7-6, but hopefully this year we can not let up that many goals and still be winning games and be in the race.”

The adjustments that Colliton implemented took time to settle in, especially the man-to-man defensive zone strategy. For Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, the changes were more than he realized at first. Playing under Quenneville for so long players were used to a certain rhythm of doing things, like the tempo of practices.

“But in games, I think our defensive system changed, all those things that just kind of came naturally with how I played defensively as a forward all changed overnight and there was definitely some adjustment where we were still playing pretty good but just couldn’t find a way to win games and get over that hump once Jeremy took over,” Toews said.

Those struggles early on under Colliton included an eight-game losing streak and three wins in their first 17 games after Quenneville’s firing. But 67 games of experience for the new coach means 67 games of knowing what buttons to push for each of his players and 67 games of identifying the weaknesses that need improvement. The Blackhawks’ veterans aren’t going to put up with another season ending without a playoff berth and the road back there begins with the buying of what the head coach is selling.

“Jeremy is so detailed. He’s thought of everything. His approach is incredible, his preparation is incredible,” Toews said. “He’s great at talking to us, letting us know what he’s thinking. We’ve got to respect that he’s the boss, he’s making those decisions and he’s taking that responsibility. As a captain you sometimes have your own opinions, but you’re not always going to see perfectly eye to eye. He’s one of those guys who’s willing to hear you out and talk to you on a daily basis. 

“But having said that, there’s no guarantees. We’ve got to come to training camp ready to work knowing that we’re going to have to work really hard to get back to where we were near the end of last season.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stan Bowman’s big bet on Blackhawks’ core

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With no postseason series wins in four years, no postseason appearances in two years, and a veteran team with big contracts it would not have been a huge shock if the Chicago Blackhawks decided to tear things down a little this offseason in an effort to start a new chapter for the organization.

Sure, some of the contracts remaining on the team are ugly in terms of the commitment and dollars still owed, and they are loaded with no-trade clauses, but there are always ways around all of that that. No contract is so bad that it can not be moved, clauses can be waived, deals can be bought out.

But instead of tearing down the core or making drastic changes to the foundation of the team, Bowman has instead doubled down on his championship core and worked to try and fix the flaws that existed around it.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

  • He signed Robin Lehner for one year to give the team a safety net in case Corey Crawford is limited by injuries or poor performance.
  • He acquired veteran defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan.
  • He re-acquired Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens, continuing his longstanding trend of bringing back players he previously traded or lost to free agency.
  • He made the bold and controversial decision to trade one the team’s top prospects — defender Henri Jokiharju — for what is probably a lesser prospect in Alexander Nylander.

By doing all of this, and by going after the type of players he did (mostly established veterans built to win now), he is pretty much telling the hockey world he still believes this Blackhawks team is good enough to compete and win this season. Maybe there is some reason for him to believe that. As long as a team has high-end players in its lineup the window will always remain cracked open and you never want to truly punt on a season as long as you still have that. And the Blackhawks certainly still have some of that element with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Duncan Keith at the top.

But it is still a big bet that is going to depend largely on what happens with the Crawford-Lehner duo in net, how much they can get out of their top-returning defenders, and if he acquired the right players to improve what has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

The issue for Bowman is going to come if he is wrong on these bets.

The Blackhawks have not come close to reaching the standard they set for themselves between 2010 and 2015 and have won just three total playoff games over the past four years (all coming in a Round 1 loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 playoffs).

Given that the team has already fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning, future Hall of Fame coach within the past year we have probably reached the point where any continued lack of success is going to start falling on Bowman. He is the one that chose the direction of the team, he is the one that brought in the players that are supposed to help fix the problems, and it’s not like his recent track record of deals and moves is beyond reproach.

Everything about the Blackhawks’ offseason points to a team that thinks it can win this season.

If it doesn’t, it could be costly for the general manager.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Strome’s development will be huge factor for Blackhawks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

One of the few bright spots for the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks had to be the emergence of Dylan Strome following his mid-season acquisition from the Arizona Coyotes.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Strome was a talented young player that had performed and produced at an incredibly high level at every stop in his development. He was a dominant junior player and a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League, but never really had much of a chance to shine with the Coyotes at the NHL level.

They were patient and methodical in his development, wanting him to grow as a two-way center before throwing him into the deep-end of the NHL pool. He would never get a chance to take that step in Arizona having been traded to Chicago for Nick Schmaltz. At the time, it seemed like a great gamble for the Blackhawks to take. They needed young, cheap players that still had big-time potential to help restock their cupboards, and the cost to get him was not fair.

The early returns have been great.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He recorded 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in his first 58 games with the team. Only three players on the Blackhawks (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat) recorded more points after his arrival.

One of the biggest keys for the Blackhawks in 2019-20 will be whether or not Strome’s initial success in Chicago was something that he can build on, or if it was just simply a giant mirage.

The promising part for Strome is that the talent and potential for him to be an impact player has never been an issue. It has always just been a matter of him getting an opportunity and actually putting everything together.

With the Blackhawks he demonstrated top-line playmaking ability (his 1.02 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play were second on the team, trailing only Patrick Kane) and scored at a 25-goal pace over 82 games.

That is all outstanding.

But there were still some serious red flags that came with that production.

While he seemed to find a goal-scoring touch, he was not a player that created a lot of shots on his own. That is a problem because the biggest part of consistently scoring goals is consistently creating shots.

He averaged under two shots on goal per game and was one of the team’s worst players at generating shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. A lot his new goal-scoring success was driven by a 16.2 percent shooting percentage. And while that is not an outrageously high number (he was a 12 percent shooter in Arizona) it is still a mystery as to whether or not he can maintain such a level.

The Blackhawks were also badly outshot and outchanced when he was on the ice, a trend that remained consistent no matter who his linemates were.

None of this is to suggest he can not improve in these areas. He does not turn 23 years old until March, only has 106 games of NHL experience on his resume, and has a track record of producing at an All-Star level offensively throughout his development. It is just to point out that he is far from a finished product and a huge X-factor for the Blackhawks.

If he improves his two-way play and generates more shot volume he has a chance to be an important of the next wave of talent to go through Chicago alongside Debrincat and 2019 first-round pick Kirby Dach.

But if he keeps getting stuck in his own end of the ice while opponents pump shots on the Blackhawks’ net and he has to rely on shooting percentage to score goals, some of his scoring luck might soon run out.

The direction his career takes this season will play a big role in the direction the Blackhawks’ season takes.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.